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Life in Mass Institutions

cross-posted from post in space

From “The Problem of Student Engagement” on Wright’s Room:

When I first learned this statistic I was stunned. Moreover, research shows that the longer our students are in school, the less academically competent they feel (Covington & Dray, 2001) – even students who are considered “successful” in our current system experience this problem. That’s a pretty big deal. School shouldn’t be something you have to recover from, and for too many of our kids, it is.

Currently, I have a directed reading course on neuroplasticity & learning. The change in an adolescent’s brain is immense, with large portions of the executive function and the prefrontal cortex maturing. There is also a significant proliferation in dendrites & synapses that causes the adolescent cortex to thicken, before it goes through 6 or so years of intense pruning. It’s vitally important that our students be deeply engaged cognitively during this period. The brain works on a use it or lose it principle. So you can see why a boring environment having a more powerful thinning effect on the brain cortex than an exciting or enriched environment has on cortex thickening is a big deal. Boring classroom environments might actually be harming our students ability to think.

Bored student

Are dull classrooms making kids dumber?

Life in our mass institutions dumbs us all down. We insist on trying to educate, to inculcate a set of facts and skills that we test, and this is a form of brainwashing. We could instead return to what has been the usual goal of our group efforts in government: providing resources that families need and want to make their lives better.

The US did this when providing communities the physical infrastructure of schools was essential. The group effort to make a place for learning outside of private homes was successful. The US now has a large network of schools. Some nation-states struggle with achieving this (especially when they rely on the US model, unique to its time and place).

Since this network, whatever its condition, is in place, the provision of services should mean schools provide a wide array of learning services that help families and kids. Instead, compulsory attendance laws have frozen the factory model in place and the ubiquity of the school experience has meant that many see the current school model as the only way schools can function.  School administration remains stuck in a 19th century mode even as families and kids in this neoliberal era need more support and services.

And so we argue about what is taught when what we need to grasp is that we can provide schools and tools and services but trying to educate someone is an invasive form of manipulation. The strong blog post referenced above shows just how damaging this education can be when measured with modern methods. The attempt to mass brainwash kids into achieving numerical test results is still fairly new in the US. For most of our history, we provided resources — school buildings and land grants and teachers and extracurriculars — that were valuable to a great number.

But compulsory attendance laws have stifled administrative innovation and created a large group of empowered technocrats who are structurally isolated from the people they should serve. And so the entrenched technocrats and the politicos at the state and Federal level work around the edges of the problem in a system whose major design flaw is that those within the system itself have no voice. Families are completely cut out and the students themselves are ignored (abusive suspensions and neglect are also evident in a large scale). Our citizens pay for schools but cannot ask for services.

Even in other nation-states without the large economic disparities and diverse ethnic makeup of the US, the role of mass schools is proving problematic as families grapple with peer-dependence from years of mass socialization. Social services need to allow the users of the services to structure their social worlds in diverse ways. Families need and want services but our large-scale systems are undemocratic and prone to authoritarian tactics; those within them hang onto a power they should not have in the first place.

Increasing the low-level democracy within our mass institutions is critical: families and kids need far more control, a greater ability to shape their learning and social lives in ways unique to their situation. Granular control by families is the opposite of standardization: it works by having decisions made by those closest to the child. This would strengthen families and also communities. Mass institutions raising and training kids for an ever-increasing length of time are very new and not likely to survive in their current form.

More on compulsory attendance and schools:

Photo by Richard Phillip Rücker released under a Creative Commons license.

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